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Iraq fails the democracy taste test

As the June 30 deadline for a US pullout from major cities approaches, it's back to nation-building Iraqi-style.

An Iraqi and U.S. soldiers conduct a joint patrol in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, June 19, 2009. (Saad Shalash/Reuters)

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi colonel, taking a break from overseeing Iraqi soldiers practicing their rifle skills, explained why Iraq — although doing better than anyone gave it credit for — was never going to be the kind of place where human rights reigned or rule of law actually ruled.

“You brought us this democracy and it gave us indigestion — it was too much for us,” he said.

Two weeks from the much-heralded withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities, Iraq is marching toward full sovereignty to its own tune — one quite different from that envisioned when the U.S. and its coalition partners toppled Saddam to create an outpost of democracy in the Middle East.

An increasingly independent Iraq, perhaps unsurprisingly, has turned more … Iraqi.

Now that the country is no longer fighting a civil war, concern has shifted to even more complicated, potentially destabilizing threats —  power struggles between the Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders and security forces, reconciliation of Sunnis and armed militias.

There are still 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but they are largely invisible to an American public preoccupied by the war in Afghanistan or just the battle to make ends meet. Moved outside the cities, the soldiers are waiting in the wings — combat brigades just a phone call away in case Iraqi forces need their help.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says, however, that he isn’t planning to make that call.

“We will not ask them to intervene in combat operations or in operations related to maintaining public order,” the Iraqi leader recently told Le Monde newspaper. “It is finished.”

He told the French newspaper that essentially the U.S. military's role would be carrying the bags — helping to transport Iraqi troops because Iraq has no planes.

A lot of that is for public Iraqi consumption. Even with the drawdown, the United States will still have soldiers in 320 bases in Iraq after June 30, according to General Ray Odierno. After the deadline next year for all U.S. combat forces to be out of Iraq, the U.S. is still expected to retain up to 50,000 brigade combat teams advising and assisting the Iraqis until all troops leave at the end of 2011.

Iraq’s defense minister made clear this week that despite the deadline this month for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraqi cities, U.S. forces would still be needed for surveillance, air support and logistical help.